Van Gogh’s footprint on an olive grove painting

One of Vincent’s fingerprints was found on the edge of Olivier (November 1889), belonging to the Minneapolis Institute of Art and now loaned to an exhibition at the Van Gogh Museum.

The Amsterdam Show Van Gogh and the olive groves, which opened last weekend (until June 12), collects most of his paintings on this motif from the year he lived in the asylum on the outskirts of Saint-Rémy-de-Provence.

Photomicrograph of Oliviershowing the ridges of the newly discovered fingerprint in the center. Photomicrograph taken using a stereomicroscope at the Midwest Art Conservation Center, Minneapolis, by Laura Hartman of the Dallas Museum of Art

To prepare for the exhibition, Van Gogh’s 15 series of olive groves scattered around the world were systematically studied by conservators and restorers. The show started at the Dallas Museum of Artwhere it closed last month.

By examining OlivierDallas restaurateur Laura Hartman discovered fingerprint marks near the top edge of Olivier, just to the right of the prominent sun. The position of the imprint suggests that Van Gogh scooped up the wet paint with his hand, balancing it by holding it near the middle of the canvas. While this may have happened when he lifted the picture from the easel, it is more likely that it happened as he was bringing it back to his studio at the asylum, a walk of about ten minutes.

Vincent painted Olivier end of November 1889. As he wrote to his brother Theo: “I strolled through the groves morning and evening on those clear and cold days, but under a very beautiful and bright sun”. He made several landscapes, but this one seems to have been made in the early morning, just after sunrise – with a striking but unrealistic depiction of a “big yellow sun”, as he told his sister Wil .

It’s a late autumn scene, with a patchwork of bluish shadows on the reddish earth. Using artistic license, Van Gogh did not paint the shadows as they should fall, which would be directly towards the viewer, but instead positioned them at an angle. Under the powerful sun, the silhouette of the Alpilles (the Petites Alpes), a chain that stretches just south of Saint-Rémy, takes shape.

The smudged trace of a fingerprint on Olivier is not clear enough to identify it positively as that of the artist, but it is almost certain that it is his. Van Gogh almost always worked quickly, and often not as neatly, so he probably wasn’t overly concerned about these minor damages.

by Van Gogh summer evening (Summer Evening) (June 1888). Courtesy of the Kunst Museum Winterthur (gift of Dr. Emil Hahnloser, 1922) (photo: SIK-ISEA, Zurich, Jean-Pierre Kuhn)

The best example of Van Gogh’s fingerprints is on summer evening, painted in Arles in June 1888 and currently in the Kunst Museum Winterthur, Switzerland. Like with Olivierthe marks are in the center of the upper edge, suggesting that Van Gogh used to wear his canvases wet like this.

In Summer Evening, the marks appear to be the thumb and index finger of a left hand. The painting was done on a very windy day, when the mistral was blowing hard, which explains why he had difficulty holding the canvas, probably after it was taken from his easel.

As Van Gogh said to his friend Emile Bernard about Soir d’été: “I painted it in the mistral. My easel was fixed in the ground with iron stakes, a method which I recommend to you. We push in the legs of the easel and then we push in next to them an iron dowel 50 centimeters long. You tie everything with strings; this way you can work in the wind.

Fingerprints have now been discovered on a dozen of Van Gogh’s paintings, and it is sometimes suggested they could be used to help authenticate his work. However, almost all fingerprints are only part of a finger or are smudged, so this is unlikely to prove a viable means of authentication.

In addition to fingerprints, traces of insects were found on two of Van Gogh’s other olive grove paintings. These were also discovered during research for the current exhibit. On Olive Grove (July 1889, now Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo), an 18 cm trail was left by a small insect that crawled through the artist’s fresh paint.

Photomicrograph of an insect walking through painting, a detail from Van Gogh’s Olive grove (July 1889). Courtesy of the Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo (photomicrograph: Margje Leeuwestein)

And on another board, Olivier (June 1889, now Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City), the remains of a grasshopper were found. The unfortunate creature was blown into Van Gogh’s fresh paint, probably while the artist was working in the grove on a summer’s day.

Photomicrograph of the head and hind leg of a grasshopper on Olivier (June 1889). Courtesy of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri

These fingerprints and insect remains give us further insight into Van Gogh’s way of working. Forgetting minor details of their execution, he was totally focused on the impact of his paintings.

Martin Bailey is the author of Van Gogh finale: Auvers and the artist’s rise to fame (Frances Lincoln, 2021, available in the UK and U.S). He is a leading Van Gogh scholar and investigative journalist for The arts journal. Bailey has curated Van Gogh exhibitions at the Barbican Art Gallery and Compton Verney/National Gallery of Scotland. He was co-curator of Tate Britain’s The EY exhibition: Van Gogh and Great Britain (March 27-August 11, 2019).

Van Gogh’s Last Books by Martin Bailey

Bailey has written a number of other bestselling books, including The Sunflowers Are Mine: The Story of Van Gogh’s Masterpiece (Frances Lincoln 2013, available in UK and U.S), Southern Studio: Van Gogh in Provence(Frances Lincoln 2016, available in UK and U.S) and Starry Night: Van Gogh in the Asylum (White Lion Publishing 2018, available in the UK and U.S). whiskey cream Living with Vincent van Gogh: the houses and landscapes that shaped the artist (White Lion Publishing 2019, available in the UK and U.S) provides insight into the artist’s life. The Illustrated Letters of Provence by Van Gogh has been re-released (Batsford 2021, available in UK and U.S).

• To contact Martin Bailey, please email: [email protected] Please direct any questions about authenticating possible Van Goghs to the Van Gogh Museum.

Read more on the Martin’s Adventures with Van Gogh blog here.

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